My friend had gone to get a beer in the middle of the game, and I checked my email for a message I was expecting, and found at the top of the inbox the headline that the Evangelical patriarch J. I. Packer had died. He was 93 and his death not a surprise, but a loss still. I crossed myself, which probably doesn’t happen much in the bleachers of Wild Things stadium, though some of the Hispanic men coming to the plate cross themselves.
He’d been a friend of almost forty years, since my friend the writer Thomas Howard, an old friend of his, had introduced us, and I’d ferried him around from his summer teaching job at the nearby Evangelical seminary. The seminary had flown him in and put him up in the lone apartment in the vast main building, up on a hill away from everything, but not given him a car or any way to get around.
He consented to have dinner with my wife and me and another couple. Someone asked him how he met his wife. He said he’d been giving talks at an Evangelical conference near the ocean. Early in the morning, he walked down the beach saying his prayers and looked up, and saw a woman walking towards him, as the sun began to rise. And, he said, and paused just a half-second, “I thought,” and he paused another half second, “what an extraordinarily ugly woman.”
The four of us froze. He continued the story, telling us he’d the same experience and the same thought the next morning. He spoke of their courtship in just a few sentences. I didn’t know him well enough then to know he enjoyed shocking these earnest young Americans, that the point of the story was to make us freeze with our drinks in our hands, having no idea what to say. It was mischievous, but gently mischievous, and mixed with affection.
He’d been a friend of almost forty years, since my friend the writer Thomas Howard, an old friend of his, had introduced us, and I’d ferried him around from his summer teaching job at the nearby Evangelical seminary.
He once preached in a very Anglo-Catholic parish, one of those places which despite being Protestant churches try to be more Catholic than the Catholics. The ministers there wore birettas, which they’d raise every time someone said the name of Jesus. Jim said Jesus’ name a lot during his sermon. When he went into churches with few people spaced out among the pews, he would sit next to someone, because he believed worship communal and wanted at least one person to know that someone else wanted to be with him.
A good man, kind, gentle, whimsical, generous, he was committed to the truth as he saw it. He was a serious Evangelical Protestant, who did not waver. I’ll have a Mass said for him, which would have upset him, but now he knows better, though I suspect he may force an extended discussion of Purgatory before he finally consents to enter.
Tom told me about a class they’d taught together a few years ago, taking up the relation of Catholicism and Protestantism. They’d had a great time, he said, and it had been a rollicking good class, with lots of banter and teasing and a real attempt at understanding each other and conveying this to the students. At the end of the last day, Tom was talking to some students when Jim left to get a flight. At the door he turned and said, in a solemn voice, “The Roman Mass is an insult to my Lord,” and left the room. Tom was left staring at the empty doorway.
He knew Jim did not mean to offend. He wasn’t trying to score a point at the end of the class and get the last word. But he felt strongly about the matter and felt he must say something. Worried, I think, that someone would think he approved of the Mass because he hadn’t said clearly he didn’t. The truth must be spoken. He had to speak, as he thought it, for Jesus, whom he loved and adored.
A good man, kind, gentle, whimsical, generous, he was committed to the truth as he saw it.
Theologically, he was a man of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in many ways an English Puritan. He did not feel much natural sympathy for the shape and practice of Catholicism. His classic and huge-selling book Knowing God includes an heretical attack on images, of the usual sort. His book One Faith, the summation of Evangelical belief he wrote with the Methodist Thomas Oden, includes in its 200-some pages just one reference to Mary. The book portrays her only as a birth mother, an instrument, and nothing beyond that.
Despite his strong Protestantism, Jim had a Catholic mind. He told me that in his twenties he’d struggled with becoming a Catholic. Compared with the other Evangelical Anglican patriarch, John Stott, whom I knew slightly, he cared about the entire Christian tradition and felt it as an authority. It bothered him to disagree with so many Christians.
It did not bother John at all. If he decided Scripture taught something no Christian in history had held, John would — I once asked him about this over lunch — insist on his understanding of Scripture. Jim would rethink his reading of Scripture. Maybe not change his mind, but he would hold out against the tradition only if he couldn’t see a way not to.
Some years ago, standing by the book table at a Wheaton College theological conference, Jim told me that my and Tom’s entering the Catholic Church were the only two conversions that bothered him. He thought we were throwing away our gifts, but I think he also felt with real pain that he was now divided from two men he cared about.
Rest in peace, Jim. May the angels lead you into paradise, and may the martyrs receive you at your arrival and lead you to the holy city, Jerusalem. May choirs of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have eternal rest.
David Mills is editor of Hour of Our Death and is finishing a book for Sophia Press titled When Catholics Die.
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